A Lover of Unreason
by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
320pp, Robson Books, £20
Looking yourself up in the index, Norman Mailer-like, might be a good way to joke-start a review, but not, I think, here. My name occurs a number of times in this biography of Assia Wevill, but whatever my ego might have hoped for or resented, reading the full story has only revived an acute horror at what happened more than 40 years ago.
The two Israeli authors are not stylists – their tone is that of a black-edged issue of Hello! – but they have assembled in great detail the life of a remarkable woman whom many of us knew and loved but whom we all seem to have allowed to be airbrushed out of literary history. For me to have waited till the main actors are dead to lay at the door of Ted Hughes and the literary establishment the cruelty of excising Assia’s true part in the Hughes/Plath heritage, assigning her only the role of marginal temptress, may seem a cowardly act. My excuse is the lack, up to now, of any written record to support my conviction that a common front was declared against her soon after her death. In the name of a greater legend she had to be kept in the background.
When Hughes became Assia’s lover and left Sylvia Plath in 1962, her eclipse was set in motion. While she was not a poet of genius, as Plath was, she was more than just a beautiful woman who set her cap at a celebrated poet. She had wit, charm and generosity, and while she could be wilful and self-dramatising, she was also natural and straightforward – never in my eyes the “femme fatale”.
The book’s title is from her self-composed epitaph: “Here lies a lover of unreason, and an exile.” There is another epitaph: “Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had” – this from a letter of Hughes’s written after her suicide in 1969. But any connection with her was suppressed by him at the inquest and, more damagingly, she appears either sidelined in his writing or demonised, as in “Dreamers”, in Birthday Letters
[ … ]
Her German the dark undercurrent
In her Kensington jeweller’s elocution
Was your ancestral Black Forest whisper –
Warily you cultivated her,
Her Jewishness, her many-blooded beauty
[ … ]
Who was this Lilith of abortions
Touching the hair of your children
With tiger-painted nails?
She sat there in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery –
Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon
Between curtains of black Mongolian hai
These lines are excerpts from a violently hostile text. The poem ends: “the dreamer in me / Fell in love with her, and I knew it”.
The Birthday Letters are addressed to Plath; Assia is their subject only in this quoted poem. That Hughes should use one suicidal woman to excuse himself to another is extraordinary, but more so is the contrast between this denunciation and the passionate life he shared with her from 1962 until her death. Time did not bring reconciliation or empathy.
Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have traced her surviving papers and diaries, held chiefly by her sister in Canada, and have interviewed some of those who knew her in Israel, Canada and England. Nothing that puts Hughes in a poor light is not supported by his own words. Assia’s most scarifying observations are directed at herself; their agony is a via dolorosa of love’s exchanges with revulsion.
Assia Gutmann was born in Berlin in 1927. Her father, Dr Lonya Gutmann, was a Russian Jew married to a Lutheran nurse. He removed the family to Palestine in the 30s, recognising that, even with an Aryan wife, he would have no future in Germany.
Neither he nor Assia had much sense of Jewish identity or interest in Jewish culture – and even less in what was to be the new Jewish state. They were lovers of European high culture – the great novelists, poets and composers whose names recur in her correspondence. She grew up speaking German, Hebrew and English. Dr Gutmann was a bon viveur – Palestine/Israel was exile to him. Assia didn’t attend any Jewish school, but rather an academy for well-off Arab children who identified with the Mandated British. Somehow she acquired a beautifully modulated English voice long before she set foot in Britain. In “Dreamers” Hughes declares “her speech Harrod’s”. I found it more melodious than affected: perhaps Australian class worries are different. The Gutmann family strategy was to get out of Palestine.